The ‘talk concert’ cult

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The ‘talk concert’ cult

Back in April, I made a pact with a friend not to use Facebook for an entire month. Its absence from my life, followed by its reappearance in May, reminded me of a few obvious things. For instance: attention-seeking behavior is human, and yet, the more attention we seek, the more miserable we become. The regular Facebook user asks himself, “Why is nobody commenting on my photo?” when a better question would be, “Why do I feel the need to upload a photo at all?”

I also realized that Korea loves the institution known as “talk concert.” After I logged back in on May 1, it hit me that quite a large proportion of what appears on my feed relates to famous Koreans giving speeches. There are adverts for speeches, and friends’ reactions to (and photos of) speeches. There are speeches aimed at young people (named something like “Youth! Cheer up!”) and there are speeches for “healing” aimed at stressed-out, overworked adults. There are speeches about politics and social issues. There are speeches about “leadership,” for those interested in business.

All of this stuff appears only in Korean, because the talk concert phenomenon is, as far as I know, something that isn’t nearly so huge in other countries where I have friends. I don’t remember ever having had a friend back home tell me they went to hear a speech on leadership by some famous business book author.

I’m not saying the public lecture itself is a bad thing. Societies need experts, and heroic figures who can set an example. It can be inspiring to go and see such a person talk, and learn something from them. My country has probably gone too far in rejecting role models and being cynical about everything and everyone. But I do think the Korean public puts far too much trust in those who stand up and position themselves as experts or leaders. The sales of “self-development” books here, and talk concerts, seem to be a reflection of that.

Why is there such a cult of the expert? I think part of it is a matter of deference to authority, a tendency which is, in my opinion, particularly strong in Korea. Cliched as it is to say, it may also be the result of an educational system that teaches people there is a right answer that one does not argue with. Answers come not from iteration and discovery but are handed down from up high - from one’s teachers, or the famous people who discovered them.

I tend to regard talk concerts as just another industry, rather like the actual concert industry (though I prefer the latter, since it can also make you dance). If a motivational speaker can give you a lift, then maybe it was worth the ticket price. Someone peddling secrets to happiness, wealth or relationship success isn’t actually going to make you happier, wealthier or help you find the love of your life, but maybe they could cheer you up for an evening.

The political talk concert does bother me a little though. Interestingly, it is usually my more left-leaning (well, in the Korean context), skeptical-of-authority friends who go to political talk concerts. These are people who seemingly appreciate democratic values and intellectual freedom, and yet enjoy spending evenings being handed down opinions from a podium. The talk concert is an example of one-way, top-down communication; in that sense, isn’t it actually very undemocratic in spirit?

A few times in the past, I gave talks on political or social issues (for small audiences, I might add - my books aren’t that popular), but I always felt strange doing so. I always made it a point to say “… but you don’t have to listen to me.” In the Q&A part, there would always be someone who would ask, “How do we solve [XYZ complicated social problem]?” The real answer is “I haven’t got a clue, and if I did, I would deserve a Nobel Prize,” but people seem disappointed if you respond like that.

The only political talk concert I would actually want to see would be the one where the speaker encourages the listener to have confidence in their own opinion, and says, “Stop listening to me; now go out and start discussing this topic with others.” It would be wonderful if a well-known person were to start organizing debating societies and discussion cafes, and then step back when the movement developed a life of its own.

The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor

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